Thursday, October 07, 2004

Guidelines for understanding the atonement

Some preliminary thoughts:

Jesus Christ, Son of God, Messiah. His name is known throughout the world, and yet few people know what He actually accomplished on earth, or even why He came. There are plenty of ideas, and many Christians believe whatever comes their way because every else believes it – so it must be right, they think. Sadly, many do not consider what ideas are presented, and fail to see how little many of the ideas line up with the character of God and plain common sense.

The core of the confusion, I believe, comes in actually trying to put Christ into an equation like: Christ + life + death = salvation for us. What I mean is that since the first century, some prominent people have sought to analyse what Christ did – and in doing so have completely lost the point. The early church lived more in the thankful enjoyment of redemption than in logical reflection upon it. They speak of Christ’s work in heartfelt emotion rather than of careful definition and analysis[i]. Moreover, atonement was never a subject of controversy within the ancient church, clearly it was not a matter or terminology or something to ‘get right’ – but rather something to be told, like a story. It was not the wording or the intellectual ideas presented that were important, but the essence of the message. It is clear that Christ was far more to them than the missing term of an equation – and the hearts, not the beliefs, of others were certainly changed by what the early church told them of Christ.

Needless to say, I believe it is dangerous to write a theological equation, point a wavering finger at it and say, “that is what Christ did”. This danger is not because the statement may not be abstractly true, but rather, making such statements often conceals the power of what He did to affect our hearts. If anything, what Christ did has the power to change our hearts and turn them toward God – the theory by which it does that is largely irrelevant. It is irrelevant in the same way that knowing how a light bulb works does not help one use it to see any clearer. The point of Christ’s coming was to illuminate our hearts with the character of God, so that we would follow His light out of our darkness, not to describe our darkness, explain why we are in it, or give us a map to get out of it.

How pitiful that we merely recite descriptions of what Jesus is and does while we wallow in darkness and ignore His calls to follow Him into the light?

That said, it is nice to know what Jesus does for us, just as it is nice to know how a light bulb works. There is something fascinating about both that draws us to try to understand, but there are different levels of understanding. Let us take the light bulb as an example.

Firstly, there is having your self and surroundings illuminated by the bulb – this is arguably quite enough for most people and is the ultimate purpose of the bulb. Secondly, one understands that it is the light bulb that is the source of the light, which lets us see. This understanding is crucial to appreciating the purpose and wonder of the light bulb, and makes us grateful to the one who gave us the bulb. Then, there is understanding the basic mechanism by which the light bulb shines. This knowledge helps us more greatly appreciate the genius of the inventor. Further, in this knowledge we can explain to others that they too can have light if their house is connected to electricity. It helps us explain what the bulb does to others – so that they too will want electricity to enjoy the benefits of light. Finally, one can understand the different components and function each part of the bulb has, which highlights the wisdom and intelligence of the designer. Such knowledge also helps us build our own light bulb, to give to others. One can seek to understand the very essence of matter that makes up the parts – but one will probably be wrong and be no better at making light bulbs.

The same is true of Christ – understanding should always be of benefit to us. As we consider what Christ has done for us, perhaps looking into various parts that make up the complete work, we should ask ourselves:

  1. Does it illuminate us with the love of God (the light the Son shines)? Such illumination should inspire us to turn to God and love Him in return with all our heart, soul and mind, and love others as Christ did. (level one)
  2. Does it inspire us to praise and thank God, and so love Him even more (for giving us His Son, the light of the world)? (level two)
  3. Does it inspire others to want to connect into God (the electricity)? (level three)
  4. Does it help us to not only share the light of God with others, but to also BE a Godly light to others, just as Christ was (because we understand how Christ was a light)? (level four)

This analogy is limited, but the points remain; whatever we perceive the atonement to be, it should actually have a positive effect on us or on others. If it does not, then perhaps we need to change our views.

Lastly, it does not matter what names one gives to the parts of a light bulb, for it does not change their function, shape or design. Nor does it matter what you say the light bulb does, for what it does is not determined by what you say. Likewise, we should not let terminology become the issue – rather, Christ is the issue and should remain central.

I will endevour to post on the atonement views shortly, as the next part of my discussion.

1 comment:

Luuk said...

So, how many of us take lightbulbs for granted?